The Case Against Letting Kids Play Football Just Got Stronger

Degenerative brain disease and toxic lessons in masculinity from the NFL

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

As a former athlete in high school and college, I thought sports would play more of a role in my relationship with my son.

Athletics provided the father that I didn’t have. The daily routine of going to practice didn’t just enhance my physical abilities; I had a structured place to go when school wasn’t in session. Sports taught me how to communicate with others, especially with other boys, and instilled an appreciation of fitness that has stayed with me to this day. I learned the values of teamwork, loyalty and preparation with every practice and drill I completed, with every mile I ran. And where I’m from, it’s much better to learn courage on the field than in the street.

I played basketball and football, did track and field. Football in particular taught me how to overcome obstacles much larger than my diminutive frame could initially handle. It was coaches more than my guidance counselors who paved the way for me to go to college.

But I won’t allow my son to play football.

My son goes to school so he can use his brain to contribute to society, not so that he can eventually donate his brain to scientists who study brain trauma. The more brain research that emerges on the long-term effects of playing football, the more disgusted I become with parents cheering on their children as they knock skulls in youth leagues across the country.

It’s past time that we banned children from playing tackle football. We don’t allow kids to drink alcohol until they’re legally adults. We shouldn’t encourage students to be punch drunk either. My son may play sports, but football won’t be one of them.

In a recent study of the donated brains of 202 deceased football players, scientists diagnosed the presence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, also known as CTE, in 177 players across all levels of play (87 percent), including 110 of 111 former National Football League players (99 percent), according to findings published last week in the medical journal JAMA. CTE is a degenerative disease that results from repeated blows to the head, and causes memory loss, aggression, depression and suicidal thoughts, among other symptoms.

The researchers found that the proportion of those diagnosed with CTE increased with every successive level — high school, college and professional. That’s clear evidence of the cumulative effect of brain trauma. And it’s why we need to take our children out of the pinball machine. Researchers believe the most effective way to prevent the disease to limit the number of blows to the head. And that’s especially true during periods when the brain is still developing.

Approximately 1.23 million youth between the ages of 6 and 12 participated in tackle football in 2015, according the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, a trade association that conducts participation studies in various sports. Involvement in youth football increased slightly from the previous year, but there’s been an overall decline over the past decade.

Kids naturally know not to use their heads as battering rams. Adults condition them into it. To satisfy our morbid, masculine fantasies of sport, we unnecessarily put our children at risk by allowing them to play football. The mounting evidence of the harm it causes means we can’t ignore it anymore, and we should alter our own behavior accordingly — because our kids learn their fascination with the sport from us. Every time we buy a cap or jersey from that team in Washington, D.C., every time we make a big event out of the Super Bowl, our kids are learning that we value football, that society reveres it.

But brain injury isn’t the only risk parents should worry about with football.

When we put our sons in football, we pledge them into a culture of toxic masculinity, the very worst incarnation of manhood. Sports may have given me a father, but football was an abusive one. I learned that in order to be a good football player, I had to be physically aggressive but otherwise unemotional. Yelling was so normative that many of my fellow athletes responded exclusively to a raised voice. Coaches regularly used tactics of teaching courage not out of place in gangs.

Embattled quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s continued unemployment is the NFL telling the world, and its players, what place an upright black man has in football (which is to say, none). No sport teaches black men how to genuflect to unwarranted authority more than football. Since the players can’t lash out against their coaches, they project their anger onto the women in their lives. We have video of Ray Rice’s 2014 vicious attack on his now wife Janae Rice. He is no longer in the league, but Rice’s absence can’t make up for the many other assaults against women, some of which police helped to sweep under the rug.

I really want to be a great father to my son — so I can’t pass on the parenting lessons I received from sports.

Take away football, or sports in general, and you leave so many fathers flat-footed; without a ball or a bat or a glove as a prop, we’re unsure how to interact with our sons. Sports for some is as much a parenting tool as it is a set of physical skills to develop. We men have to admit that without it, we really don’t know how to express our love for our sons in a healthy way. Too many of us don’t know how to communicate, love and nurture our children because we’ve been baptized in athletics.

I will forever be grateful to all my coaches, teammates and the unknown fans who cheered me on throughout my sporting career. However, I will show my gratitude by not only forbidding my son from playing football but also by applauding non-athletic pursuits.

I won’t let my son learn how to be a man from the NFL.

Andre Perry is a contributing writer at the Hechinger Report, where this story first appeared. He is the host of the weekly "Free College" radio show on WBOK 1230AM in New Orleans. Follow him on Twitter at @andreperryedu.

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